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Orange County Market Place operator wants out of contract

Will the 50-year-old Orange County Market Place, a swap meet with hundreds of vendors at the OC fairgrounds, end up as another casualty of the coronavirus pandemic?

The answer may depend on whether fairgrounds officials and Spectra, the events and entertainment company that has run the swap meet since 2016, can work out a new agreement. The Market Place has been in limbo since state health orders closed all gathering places in mid-March, and now a contract dispute appears to threaten its future prospects.

The situation has left vendors – about 400 of them who sell everything from clothes and cosmetics to furniture, flooring and hot tubs – feeling stuck in the middle.

“We don’t even know yet if it’s a safe time to go back,” said Market Place vendor Jeanine Robbins, who along with husband Mike sells cigars, pipes, flasks and related accessories. “Most of the vendors are just trying to hold on.”

For now, fairgrounds and Spectra officials appear to be in a standoff.

In a May letter, Spectra notified the OC Fair & Event Center’s board of directors it would terminate its contract to run the swap meet June 20, citing an exit clause that says it can opt out if it can’t run the marketplace for at least 90 days “for reasons beyond its control.”

But fair officials disputed Spectra’s right to end the contract, noting that the state has provided guidelines for outdoor markets to safely reopen, according to a June report to the fair board.

Fairgrounds spokeswoman Terry Moore referred questions to Spectra, which provided a statement from Executive Vice President of Food Services and Hospitality Richard Schneider that said the company has asked fairgrounds officials “to meet to discuss a new arrangement under which we could continue to operate the Market Place, as we have for the last four years, so that its more than 400 vendors will have a place to sustain and grow their small businesses.”

The Market Place has been struggling for years to retain vendors and keep attendance up, according to OC fairgrounds information. The same contractor operated the swap meet from its 1969 inception until 2016, when it negotiated a hand-off of its rights to Spectra. The current contract has about four years left.

Last summer, Spectra proposed using $600,000 it would have paid to the fairgrounds in rent to ramp up marketing and put on special events to attract more visitors; profits from these endeavors would have been used to repay the forgone rent. The fair board tabled the request indefinitely.

Then came the coronavirus, which shuttered outdoor markets from mid-March to mid-May.  When the state allowed swap meets to reopen, Spectra couldn’t get approval from the county health department to resume food and drink sales, which are the event’s real moneymaker. In 2019, the fairgrounds’ cut of refreshment sales was $4.8 million – more than twice what it made on the property rental, a report to the fair board said.

Now, vendors are hoping the two sides can work it out. Jeannine Robbins said most of them are mom-and-pop businesses, and some rely on in-person sales because they don’t have websites to handle online sales.

Mike Robbins said he thinks the fair board should reduce Spectra’s rent to account for current hard times, and some better marketing of the Market Place wouldn’t be amiss. With its prime location near a freeway in the middle of a wealthy county, it should be profitable, he said.

He and many other vendors have decades invested in the Orange County Market Place, Robbins said, so “for it to disappear would be very difficult for all of us.”

Source: Orange County Register

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